Title: Star Wars: Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel
Author: James Luceno
Location of publisher: London
Year of Publication: 2016
Number of pages: 330
Date I finished reading it: 16 January 2017
Have I read this before? No
Fiction or nonfiction: Fiction
Genres: Star Wars, sci fi
Personal reflections upon reading this book:
…But first, a brief account of my religious conversion to the Force getting into Star Wars…
Star Wars is life.
It was the early/mid-1990s. I was about 12 years old. The local tv station played the Star Wars films over the course of three Friday nights. At that time, there were only three films, bewilderingly numbered IV, V and VI. That seemed a little strange to me, and at first glance I wasn’t interested, but at my mother’s insistence I sat down to watch the films. Sitting in front of the tv for hours has never really been my idea of fun, and I’m one of those people who basically hasn’t seen most of the groundbreaking, historically significant moments in cinematic history. But when it came to Star Wars, from the very first moment Luke Skywalker appeared on the screen, I was hooked. There was something in the melancholy way he gazed out across the Tatooine desert to the binary sunset, the music swelling as the wind tossed his hair, that made me feel like he was a kindred spirit. As a rural person myself, a “gifted” child who lived in a near constant state of frustration at the limitations of school and life, amplified by an insular small-town culture that preferred sporting success to academia, often it felt like life was going nowhere. That desire to be something more, to see the galaxy… Even before my Star Wars awakening – something I see as similar to a point of religious conversion – I would stare out at the blurry expanse of the universe (it turns out I was quite short sighted, only no one had picked up on the fact that was why I regularly complained that I couldn’t see the blackboard at school… go figure). I wanted to be up there, somewhere out exploring in the endless worlds I imagined were waiting to be discovered.
Watching Star Wars for the first time was when I found out that there were other people just like me who had imagined other worlds; but they had brought these imaginings to life.
The following Monday I went into my high school’s library and looked up the Star Wars novels that I rightly assumed would be somewhere on the shelves. I found the Original Trilogy novels, written by George Lucas himself, and borrowed them. As something of a loner geek girl, the school library was my safe haven and I spent most lunchtimes there. I don’t know how else I would’ve gotten through my high school years without the refuge the library offered (though later on I joined the school band), and the world in my head that seemed to me to be far superior to reality.
I read the books very quickly, interspersed with the following Fridays’ viewings of Episodes V and VI. From that time onwards, if people ask me my favourite film, the unhesitating answer is Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Knowing full well that the Sith are the ‘baddies,’ I found myself overwhelmingly drawn to the dark, mysterious, cowled personas of the Emperor and Darth Vader. In my own childish way, not yet particularly interested in boys at that point, I thought characters like General Veers to be rather handsome. Luke was probably the earliest film star crush I ever had. (Sorry, Han…) Princess Leia was, in my mind, utter perfection and worthy of emulation. The Force lured me in with its mystical powers and I was drawn to the notion of a kind of transcendent connectedness to all life.
I don’t recall exactly when I discovered the Expanded Universe (EU) novels. An era of spin-off novels, as well as games and comics and other media, that spanned from around 1978 to 2014, the EU Star Wars stories became a staple of my reading habits. I particularly liked the novels from the Sith and Imperial perspective, but read broadly across the range. My budget was fairly tight but I do recall an idyllic year or two when I had some paid work and would head down to the book store with my fortnightly pay packet and immerse myself in the Star Wars section. The local library was a good source of the novels, too, so I managed to get through a lot of them before the Prequels came to life. I saw the Remastered Original Trilogy at the cinemas, practically dragging my family to come along, me wearing my goth-styled long black skirts paired with my dyed black hair and my favourite black Darth Vader t-shirt. Eventually The Phantom Menace was released and, being madly in love with Darth Maul, and taking into account the glorious boom in Star Wars merchandising, it was a particularly exciting time to be a young Star Wars fan.
(I must add that I am one of these Original Trilogy fans who actually likes the Prequels – and no apologies to the self-proclaimed “True Fans” who for some reason call themselves fans while hating pretty much everything about the fandom.)
Fast-forward into the late-noughties, the Prequels were completed and I was a parent myself by then. The Clone Wars animated series came out on local television and I was, I admit it, aghast that my beloved movies were reduced to some computer generated cartoon. That is, until my kids insisted I watch it with them and, well… once again, I was hooked. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but now looking back on it I realise that my kids came to love Star Wars because of the Clone Wars. Just like how some of my younger friends got into Star Wars via the Prequels. My son dressed up as Clone Wars Anakin whenever his school had a costume day; and my daughter had (still has) Ahsoka and Obi-Wan figurines she played with frequently. When my kids were old enough for the films, I watched the Original Trilogy (the original theatrical release editions) with them before the Prequels.
Upon hearing that Disney had purchased the rights to Lucasfilm and decided to not only rebrand the Expanded Universe as the non-canonical ‘Legends,’ series, and release a new trilogy – again, I was sceptical. Even a little upset. But I got over that quickly when I realised that regardless of canonical status, it’s not as if they could actually stop me from still reading and enjoying my favourite EU novels, like the Darth Bane trilogy or Darth Plagueis or the Boba Fett novels. New, subsequent Star Wars materials would come under the banner of ‘Canon.’ Old favourite EU characters like Ben Skywalker are gone from the official Star Wars storyline; but new amazing characters like Kylo Ren/Ben Solo have been created.
In my head I sort of let the two competing canons exist parallel to each other in a paradoxical tension as alternate universes. In the first universe, Luke Skywalker marries a former Dark Sider named Mara Jade and they have a son called Ben; Leia and Han remain happily married well into old age, but their family suffers when one of their children takes on the mantle of a Sith Lord; we learn about the lives of all kinds of side-characters, too – something that I personally found interesting to explore. In the second universe, Luke has disappeared for a long time after his attempts to train a new generation of Jedi falls apart; and Leia and Han’s marriage doesn’t survive the strains of a galaxy existing in a false kind of peace. Either set of stories has its own strengths and weaknesses and admittedly I am enjoying the fresh ideas that started with The Force Awakens. Also General Armitage Hux is one of my new favourite characters.
The Force Awakens and the animated Rebels series were when I (yet again) re-re-re-discovered a love for the Star Wars universe, the fandom, and the imagination-stretching stories I loved for so many years.
That makes it almost 23 years of Star Wars fangirling, and counting.
And now for the actual point of this specific blog post…
[Warning: contains plot spoilers]
Star Wars: Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel came out in 2016 prior to the release of the film Rogue One. I started reading the novel before I saw the film on the second day it was in cinemas here in Australia. I’m glad that I did, because what I read of the novel helped me get a grip on the complex relationships that pre-existed the characters in Rogue One.
Catalyst was written by James Luceno, who previously authored some of my favourite Expanded Universe stories, like Darth Plagueis and Darth Maul: Saboteur. That was a bit of a relief to me, to see an established Star Wars writer brought back to work on the new novel series; to be honest, I hadn’t so far been particularly impressed with the new Canon stores. As much as I wanted to like the spin-off books related to Episode VII: The Force Awakens, apart from the novelisation of the film itself, and the Visual Dictionary, most of them didn’t particularly grab me in a way that kept me reading.
Catalyst is essentially the story of Galen Erso – the guy who designs the Death Star weaponry using Force-sensitive crystals called ‘kyber’ crystals. Except that he doesn’t realise, at first, that the Empire is using his research towards violent ends. Galen meets and marries Lyra, and they have a daughter called Jyn. Jyn is the central figure in the film Rogue One. Galen is a fiercely obsessive scientist, a trait that is used and manipulated by the ladder-climbing Imperial Orson Krennic. Krennic, the white-caped officer running the Death Star project in Rogue One, masterminds the Empire’s construction of the Death Star, both as an ambitious project and legacy, as well as an attempt to subvert the authority of his rival Governor Tarkin and earn the Emperor’s favour.
Galen (played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen in Rogue One) and Orson (performed by Aussie Ben Mendelsohn) have a long working relationship that extends to their school days. Their lives are inextricably intertwined, as long time colleagues, if not friends, and as co-workers for the Empire. However, Galen marries a Force-worshipping archaeological surveyor, Lyra, who is deeply moved by the plight of citizens suffering under the Imperial regime.
To be honest, as I read Catalyst’s descriptions of their personalities, and early married years, I was quite shocked at how similar Galen and Lyra seem to my husband and I. While, obviously, The Husband and I aren’t living in a galaxy far, far away, nor are we caught in the entangling webs of political and social upheaval as a power-hungry dictator seeks to subdue the entire known universe, there was something bizarrely familiar about the way Galen and Lyra’s personalities were described. My husband (an engineer with a couple of university degrees and the classic INTJ personality type) is the sort of person to be consumed by his research. In fact, as I type this at 10.00 PM on a Monday night, The Husband is poring over graphs and charts from his work. He applies the scientific method to problem solving, and despite being raised in a hyper-religious context (some would use the word ‘cult’), he finds that matters of faith are largely irrelevant to the specifics of his work; except, perhaps, in the sense of delineating his own moral baseline. Similarly, in Catalyst, Galen Erso is insistent that he will unlock the power of kybers through the power of science, and is not as interested in the Jedi’s belief system surrounding them as his wife.
Me – I’m the outdoorsy type of person, comfortable with time alone in nature, but also interested in matters of social justice, care for the environment, and equality for all people (hence my sociology degrees that focused on environmental issues) – a lot like Lyra Erso. And, like her, I live with this constant sense that the world has transcendent meaning and purpose and will. I can’t necessarily prove that via scientific means – perhaps it’s more intuition or wishful thinking – but either way, call it the Force or God or Magic, I can’t remember a time in my life where I haven’t hung my hopes on something mystic and powerful binding the whole universe. In Catalyst, Lyra is a kind of devotee of the Force, unable to harness it but in tune with it in her own way, and who is greatly grieved by the destruction of the Jedi Order. Another thing I found relatable with Lyra is how she feels trapped in the vast sprawling city of Coruscant; ever since I moved to the suburbs, I’ve felt like I was trapped, too, in a jungle of concrete, isolated from my own rural family.
Taken together, the active, survivalist character of Lyra, combined with the genius mind of Galen, serve to make the character of Jyn far more plausible. Rather than being some randomly brilliant woman who saves the day in Rogue One, it places her in the context of a family that have raised her to be who she is: strong, capable, a survivor, smart, and with an essential goodness who decides to fight for the desperately-needed hope the Galaxy is searching for.
Catalyst provides an interesting dynamic in which Galen is torn between his wife and the desires of Orson. While it’s not sexual, it reads in parts (to me) almost as if Orson has a kind of obsession with Galen. Orson’s work relationship with Galen sort of takes him to a kind of manipulative, oppressive intensity that forces him to compete with Lyra for Galen’s attention. Lyra, on the other hand, feels increasingly pushed out of her husband’s life, and she has her own journey of trying to grapple with motherhood in the Coruscant society she experiences as a kind of prison. Orson becomes enraged at Lyra’s constant questions and suspicious attitude, and he starts to look for opportunities to get her out of the way.
Catalyst also explains a few important details that help carry along the Rogue One film’s narrative: like why ‘Stardust’ is the name of the files Galen uses to save information on how to destroy the Death Star; and also how the Ersos first come into contact with terrorist leader Saw Gerrera. In Rogue One, Saw raises Jyn after her mother is killed by Orson and her father is forcibly taken to work on the Death Star, and Saw later plays a crucial role in helping Jyn track down the father she thought was dead.
I must admit that I felt a little sad reading this novel, knowing how Rogue One ends, while reading the hope-filled tale of a very young Jyn. I wish there had been more to the tale of Jyn and Captain Cassian and their comrades after they succeeded in getting the Death Star plans into the hands of Princess Leia. As refreshing as it was to see a different kind of Star Wars film, in which non-Jedi and non-Skywalkers take on the might of the Empire, I quietly kind of hoped that Jyn and Cassian could magically escape and live on a far-flung world and start a life together. I hold that in tension with my feeling that it’s about time we see a good female-led action film with no romance…
I have the novel of Rogue One waiting for me on my reading pile, and yet I’m hesitant to start reading it, knowing that I will probably be a blubbering wreck by the end.
However, in the meantime, I really enjoyed Catalyst and apart from The Force Awakens film adaptation novel, which I read last year, Catalyst is the first book in the new Canon that I have really found a pleasure to read from start-to-finish, with compelling characters, interesting plots and subplots, and a really necessary bit of backstory that added clarity and emotional weight to the film Rogue One.